Some people wax rhapsodic about being “inspired” by a beautiful piece of art or a breathtaking sunset. They paint their offices blue and adorn the walls with reprints of well-known paintings.
But does that sort of thing really have an impact on your creativity in business? Some compelling experts say the answer is “yes” and that opportunities for inspiration and greater creativity can be found all around us every day.
“Everybody can be creative in certain ways,” says Christina E. Shalley, Ph.D., organizational behavior professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “You need to find that outlet that brings it out in you.”
And that doesn’t mean a world tour of art museums, either. Here are four important ways the world around you can inspire you to be more creative—and how you can train yourself to carry over that same inspiration to your work.
When you see a vibrant sunset or listen to a piece of music that affects your mood, you’re experiencing something new and that heightens your awareness of it, says Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., author of Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Creativity and professor of educational innovations at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus. You may see colors or textures you’ve never seen before. You may hear a chord progression that stirs something in you. That opens your mind to new possibilities.
Bring that same fresh perspective to your work, says Roshi Givechi,Location Co-lead for global design and innovation consultancy IDEO's New York office. “Question your assumptions about your business,” she says. She recounts an experience with a successful project for a major bank, which wanted women with children as customers.
The initial inclination among the team was to focus on messages focused on the women themselves. But when team members met with women in their homes, they saw that their concerns about saving had more to do with the ages of their children—something that they may never have uncovered if they hadn’t been open to new approaches.
That approach also required a willingness to accept the inherent risk in not following what seemed to be the obvious route. Such risk tolerance is another important part of challenging what you think you know and cultivating creativity, Sawyer says. If you’re always afraid to try new things because they might not work, you’re going to have a tough time cultivating your more creative side.
Being exposed to great art or beauty can motivate us to express ourselves, says artist and instructor Alena Hennessy, author of Cultivate Your Creative Life. It’s not unusual for someone to be moved to write, draw, or paint after being inspired by something they see or read because it “opens up the creative mind,” she says.
Don’t roll your eyes: Adobe’s 2012 State of Create study found that while 80% of respondents see creativity as the key to driving economic growth, respondents spend only one-third of their time being creative—and much of that time is outside of work.
So, fix it. Hennessy says businesses should integrate more tactile and creativity-stoking sessions in the office. Have employees create vision boards—collages of words and images—related to business challenges or goals. Do mind-mapping or doodling exercises. Shalley likes to bring in a random object—an empty water bottle, for example—and have the team brainstorm ways that object relates to the business.
“Place it on the table and say ‘Okay, tell me how this object relates to what you’re doing, the project you’re working on.’ They begin making remote associations. It can be hard and it’s a stretch, but it opens up new ways of thinking,” Shalley says.
When you’re facing down something unexpected, whether it’s beautiful, disturbing, or just new, you’re taken out of your everyday experience and all of the preconceived notions that go with it, Sawyer says. Do something new every day to capture the same openness. Take a new route home and carefully observe what’s there. Look for beauty, interesting architecture, or exceptional gardens. Remember how it feels to be truly observant and unsure what to expect. New external stimuli spur new ideas, he says. That’s why it’s important to change your meeting venues, both in and out of the office.
Shalley adds that the current trend of adding toys and ping pong tables to the office works can help with that change of routine, but once the novelty wears off, it’s not as effective in opening those creative pathways. It’s better to plan non-disruptive changes on a regular basis: Bring in new artwork. Change the music you play in the office. Reconfigure meeting spaces to have different types of seating.
When you’re focused on external stimuli, you’re giving your mind some “breathing room” to come up with creative solutions, Givechi says. By focusing on something you find beautiful, you’ve taken the pressure off of figuring out the immediate problem at hand. And we all know how tough it is to be creative under pressure. That relief allows you to relax, which is where the best creative thinking typically happens, she says.
But what does that for you is a highly individual thing: What inspires creativity in you might not work for someone else. The key is to find your source of inspiration and get to it, she says. Find the places and things that help you clear your mind and integrate them into your day. Hennessy agrees—she came up with her most popular and profitable course offering while she was taking a dance class.
“Those things recharge thinking and give us a reason to ask ‘Why?’ Why are things the way they are? It makes us lift our heads from our phones and our technology and focus our attention on [other] things,” Givechi says.